A hot topic for Michigan fans heading into the college football season, whenever that will be, is the quarterback competition and finding a new starter. But equally, if not more concerning, is shaping the offensive line.
Four starters were taken in last month’s NFL Draft, including first-rounder center Cesar Ruiz, a gold star on offensive line coach Ed Warinner’s lofty list of accomplishments. But as Warinner approaches his third season with the Wolverines, reconstructing the line is going to be a priority, especially with a new quarterback.
As is the case for college coaches across the country, the job faces a different challenge because of the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down college sports two months ago. Michigan did not have any spring practice, which would have been a vital time for the offensive line, and the status for the upcoming season is unclear.
Still, Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, who spoke to reporters on Thursday, said there are plenty of reasons for optimism, even with only one starter – right tackle Jalen Mayfield – returning. Mayfield had been in a tight competition before last season with Andrew Stueber, who had made two starts at the end of 2018. Stueber, however, suffered a season-ending torn knee ligament in preseason camp but is ready to compete again. Ryan Hayes, a converted tight end, made two starts at left tackle last season while Jon Runyan recovered from an injury, so Michigan won’t be completely starting from scratch.
“I consider we potentially have got about three starters coming back,” Gattis said. “We feel like we've got a good nucleus of guys that played in games, whether it's been late in games or contributed as starters, and then a good group of young guys that have been here over the past year or plus that have gained valuable experience in a depth standpoint.
“But that's a big concern. We're going to have a huge competition and figure out who our best five are.”
Replacing Ruiz, a first-round selection by the Saints, will be a priority. Andrew Vastardis and Zach Carpenter, named the team’s offensive scout player of the year last season as a freshman, are expected to compete for the job. Karsen Barnhart played at left tackle in two games during his freshman season last year, and redshirt juniors Joel Honigford and Chuck Filiaga will be in the mix as Warinner determines the best four to join Mayfield.
This could be a very young line and it definitely needs seasoning in terms of game experience, but Gattis already has a good feeling about some of the things this line will be able to do.
“I'm excited about talent that we have there,” Gattis said. “I think actually, we could be a little bit more athletic up front (than last year). That's going to help us significantly in the run game, but I think the challenge for this group will be catching up to our previous group in the pass protection game.
"Our group in the past had the ability to be elite pass protectors, but this group that we have now probably has the ability to be a little bit better in the run game from an athletic standpoint. So there's positives and negatives to each side, but I think our ability to catch those guys up in both of those areas are gonna be key.”
Ruiz said during the NFL Combine that Mayfield now has to become the leader of the offensive line.
“There's a lot of young guys, (and) four young guys are going to be in there battling for a starting position,” Ruiz said. “There's going to be a lot of new faces that Michigan fans aren't used to seeing. It's going to be fun to see who fills in those spots. But Jalen Mayfield knows it's time for him to step up.”
The 6-foot-5, 319 pound junior already is getting attention nationally. ESPN’s NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper ranked Mayfield No. 14 on his first Big Board for the 2021 draft. Mayfield, All-Big Ten honorable mention last season, was the state’s No. 3-ranked player by The Detroit News in 2018 coming out of Grand Rapids Catholic Central.
Kiper wrote that while Mayfield only has 13 starts, he played well in big games.
“Including when he was lined up against No. 2 overall pick Chase Young in the Wolverines’ loss to Ohio State in the regular-season finale,” Kiper wrote. “Mayfield has some upside, and I’ll be watching closely this season.”
So with one piece in place, Mayfield at tackle, Gattis and Warinner will have plenty of work to do with the offensive line puzzle. Warinner likes versatility in his linemen, and he moves them around in practice so they’re not just one-dimensional.
“That's ultimately the No. 1 job that we've got to be able to decide, who is the best five, not necessarily this guy plays this position, or maybe he's played that position before in the past, but to mix them all in,” Gattis said. “They've been very engaged in meetings. I'm excited about the players that we have.
“But missing spring ball, I think the challenge is getting those guys caught up to speed as a group, and we're not talking about one thing from the quarterback position standpoint where it's an individual or the offense, we're talking about a unit as far as the O line. We're gonna have to get caught up to speed.”